2001-12 Economic terrorism: home-grown [Price]

From Claustrophobia #13 (winter 2001)



Maybe I missed something but, in the “all-war-all-the-time” media hype, until recently there was almost no mention of any of the tens of thousands of people laid-off after Sept. 11. Now, the mounting unemployment is too large to ignore, jumping from the back pages of the business sections that nobody reads to headlines on the front everybody does.

After the attacks, the airline workers and others working in directly-related sectors were the first to feel the fall-out, followed shortly by hotel, restaurant and other workers in air and tourism. A domino effect now with no sighs of letup, the lay-offs are growing and striking other groups of workers farther removed from the economic Ground Zero. As the founder and chief CEO of a Chicago employment agency in business since 1960 bluntly told a reporter recently, “I cannot remember such a sharp and widespread deterioration in the job market.”

After years of being told there was now a new economy of prosperity that somehow had overcome the old cycle of boom and bust, instead the permanent, lurking insecurity that was just one of the many, dirty undersides of working class life here has resurfaced – with a vengeance. An airline pilot, a “labor aristocrat” previously comfortable with a six-figure salary and taking for granted a fairly guaranteed job, now fired, finds there is no demands for his highly-specialized skills and has to scrape by on a tenth of his income. And in the ominous scope of things to come, he might be counted among the more fortunate.

Much worse off are the low-paid hotel and restaurant workers, of whom according to CNN, only 40% are eligible for any unemployment benefits. One HERE local in Las Vegas alone expects 30% of the union’s membership to be axed in the upcoming months. Already, there are murmurs that Sept. 11 will mean the death of “welfare (reform) as we know it”, as many states are reporting a sharp increase in applicants; for example, claims for social services in the District of Columbia skyrocketed 70% in the first few weeks of October. How much of a free-fall you will take is just a question of how deep the bottom is, as many welfare-reform workers will find out the hard way, by now having reached their maximum five year in a lifetime benefits under the Clinton welfare reform act with nothing left to fall back on. (In fact, you could pretty much say, figuratively speaking, that Democrats and Republicans alike have been ramming 747s into the safety net without pause for the last 20 years.)

The head of the pilots union correctly called the lay-offs sweeping the airline industry an act of “economic terrorism.” No doubt some of the lay-offs can be traced directly to Sept 11th but as THE ECONOMIST put it, “Many firms saw Sept 11th as an excuse to bring forward cuts they were already considering… almost 2/3 have blamed the terrorist attacks for their problems; implausible but convenient.”

Using generic clauses inserted into every contract giving the green light for contracts to be opened under vaguely defined “emergency circumstances”, many companies are using Sept 11 to do just that, to pry open existing contracts and demand concessions in wages and benefits.

Bringing up the emergency clause, one of the auto companies recently announced it would have to scale back both wages and interest payments on loans; no problem for the banks, they will just have the interest deferred on the loans for later payment; however under the new terms, the worker’s wages were not deferred for future pay-out – but lost for good. And you don’t have to be cynical to see how Bush’s use of the phrase, “act of war” left insurance company executives breathing a collective sigh of relief; now the road is paved to ask for a 1980s style savings-and-loan type bail-out from Congress since insurance company riders exempt compensation for damages due to war. Led by the airline industry, this private-sector stampede to the public-sector feeding trough is already underway.

These are pointed examples of what “sacrifice for America” will mean for most people in the next several years. And looking down the road, that doesn’t count, for the promises of years of budget-cutting and sacrifice of unspecified duration – but undeniable depth – to pay for it all now being touted as a new permanent war economy gears up. Make no mistake: the further down the economic ladder you are, the more burden you’re going to shoulder for this war. As Robert Follette put it over 80 years ago speaking on the eve of World War 1, “wealth has never sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism.”

In light of all this, a question has to asked: how deep is the current support for the war? No doubt, there’s a awful lot of (unevenly spread) patriotic fever right now that stretches across class lines; it would be unwise, if not unsafe, to directly criticize the war in many places Still, you see far more flags being flown in the middle-class, suburban areas than you do in poorer ones; in white areas more than Black – not so surprising if you live in one of the many areas of Baltimore, that like dozens of other ghetto areas around the country, already looks as bombed-out as Kabul and you find yourself having to deal with your own breed of clashing warlords in the form of drug gangs vying over turf. The further down the scale you go, the more indifference you see and for most working class people, receiving a monthly gas and electric bill this winter will still hold more real terror than the more remote possibility of receiving a letter laced with anthrax.

For all its noisy, outward displays of national harmony, the current patriotism talks from the heart – but doesn’t hesitate to act decisively from the wallet when the bottom line—cold cash, “the duckets” as they say—is under threat. Just one example. Despite taking out full page ads trumpeting the company’s concerns for the “victims” of the “tragedy” of Sept 11, Verizon in New York City still discretely beat a hasty retreat to the courts to beg for an exemption for having to provide customer credits for telephone service disruption in lower Manhattan. As a result, many customers are still receiving monthly bills for basic telephone service – even though they haven’t had working phones for a couple months now! This is just another small but revealing illustration of the race to shift the costs on the backs of others, on those layers least able to pay; attempts that will probably only grow from now on and over time this fictitious consensus will unravel.

With this in mind, the existing groundswell of patriotism, such as it is, is even now fraying a bit at the edges. Already, you can see the questioning beginning, the rumbling of doubts surfacing, sometimes openly, mostly clandestinely via the hidden transcript:

* A black woman matter-of factly jokes to me that Bin Laden should have hit the IRS; he would have gotten a lot more sympathy and then goes on to say that the ones who started this “shit” should go and fight their own war.

* Another woman, a maid in housekeeping, reading her Bible, says in a quiet half-whisper that her son was in the Gulf War and he told her after the war, the U.S. tried to “kill Bin Laden” but he escaped and that’s why he hates the U.S. so much. If they hadn’t “tried to kill him”, they “wouldn’t have brought this on us.” In other words, the implied message in this creative re-writing of history is an acceptable way for her to say, “what goes around, comes around.”

* A few weeks later, another young Black woman, a groundskeeper who now has to take down and fold the flag everyday (and was laid out for folding the flag “improperly”) complains in an exasperated voice about “these white people’ and how “crazy they are about THEIR flag.”

* And even a middle-aged white security guard from the South working at another facility (and like many U.S proles, two other part-time jobs as well) says that he voted for Bush but Bush is now “trying to take all of our freedoms away.”

These are just a few comments from a couple workplaces; what is going on elsewhere? However partially and however contradictory, a minority of people in their own way, already seeing the same faces-on-high spouting just a different set of lies, are starting to think for themselves.

Already, there’s been a class and race divide in the “war on terrorism” that all the calls for “national unity” can’t completely cover up. Take the Post Office workers in D.C. In contrast to the (mostly) upper middle class and white workforce on Capitol Hill, the mostly Black and working class Postal Workers, two of whom later died, didn’t register a blip in the Center for Disease Control’s radar screen for possible exposure to anthrax. No more than Red Cross workers in Kabul did in a F-16’s radar screen set for bombing the same week. Separated on two opposite sides of the globe, you could say both, in a sense, were “collateral damage.”

When confronted by angry postal workers demanding to know why they hadn’t been protected, D.C Mayor Anthony Williams deftly sidestepped the question, proclaiming “A win for the terrorists would be to have the postal workers… fighting with the CDC.” An ever-so subtle hint that could be quickly back-peddled from in case of outcry suggesting that the postal workers were somehow unpatriotic and supporting terrorism by asking questions about their health and very lives. And moreover, a tactic that will be increasingly used to silence anyone daring to ask for more in the next few years; just look at Jessie Ventura, the governor of Minnesota who used it to attack state workers recently on strike, lecturing the workers that in the current climate “sacrifices have to be made” and “belts tightened.”

Barring another major attack like Sept 11th, which will change the picture dramatically because it would lend credibility to the State’s claim that a real war is going on for the government to impose a further siege mentality, there is a good chance yet more doubts and open questions will circulate outside the usual political circles. But who will be listening? At its best, the current anti-war movement will give a space for other people to question the war; it follows if you see people demonstrating on TV, you might feel more like speaking up yourself. But given its current composition and orientation, what I’m talking about will most likely take place ALONGSIDE the movement and not BECAUSE of it.



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